Prehistoric Filter Feeders

Earth’s earlier ages are filled with enduring mysteries about the plants and creatures that lived and died long before humanity. Many of these organisms, like the aquatic Ernietta shown above, are known only from scattered fossil remains. Yet fluid dynamics is helping us understand how Ernietta lived and fed some 545 million years ago.

Ernietta were sack-like organisms consisting of stitched-together tubular elements. They had no way to move around and no obvious method for transporting nutrients into their bodies. Scientists hypothesized that they likely used one of two feeding methods: either Ernietta relied on its surface area to extract nutrients directly from the water or its shape enabled it to trap larger particles to feed on from the flow. To decide between these modes, scientists turned to computational fluid dynamics.

By modelling both single Ernietta and small groups, they found that the shape of the organism generates a rotating current inside the bag that pulls flow down along one side and back up the other. Moreover, being near one another enhanced this effect, helping downstream Ernietta catch more particles than they otherwise would. All in all, the results suggest not only Ernietta’s likely feeding method but also that they lived in colonies and practiced one of the earliest known examples of communal feeding! (Image credit: D. Mazierski, source; research credit: B. Gibson et al.; via ArsTechnica; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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